Senior American officials have rarely, if ever, used the term “apartheid” in reference to Israel, and President Obama has previously rejected the idea that the word should apply to the Jewish state. Kerry’s use of the loaded term is already rankling Jewish leaders in America—and it could attract unwanted attention in Israel, as well.
It wasn’t the only controversial comment on the Middle East that Kerry made during his remarks to the Trilateral Commission, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible. He lashed out against Israeli settlement-building. And Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks.
Kerry also said that at some point, he might unveil his own peace deal and tell both sides to “take it or leave it.”
“A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state,” Kerry told the group of senior officials and experts from the U.S., Western Europe, Russia, and Japan. “Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two-state solution, which both leaders, even yesterday, said they remain deeply committed to.”
According to the 1998 Rome Statute, the “crime of apartheid” is defined as “inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” The term is most often used in reference to the system of racial segregation and oppression that governed South Africa from 1948 until 1994.
Former president Jimmy Carter came under fire in 2007 for titling his book on Middle East peace Palestine: Peace or Apartheid. Carter has said publicly that his views on Israeli treatment of the Palestinians are a main cause of his poor relationship with President Obama and his lack of current communication with the White House. But Carter explained after publishing the book that he was referring to apartheid-type policies in the West Bank, not Israel proper, and he was not accusing Israel of institutionalized racism.
“Apartheid is a word that is an accurate description of what has been going on in the West Bank, and it’s based on the desire or avarice of a minority of Israelis for Palestinian land,” Carter said.
Leading experts, including Richard Goldstone, a former justice of the South African Constitutional Court who led the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict of 2008 and 2009, have argued that comparisons between the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and “apartheid” are offensive and wrong.
“One particularly pernicious and enduring canard that is surfacing again is that Israel pursues ‘apartheid’ policies,” Goldstone wrote in The New York Times in 2011. “It is an unfair and inaccurate slander against Israel, calculated to retard rather than advance peace negotiations.”
In a 2008 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, then-Sen. Barack Obama shot down the notion that the word “apartheid” was acceptable in a discussion about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians:
“There’s no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance that goal,” Obama said. “It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told The Daily Beast that Kerry was simply repeating his view, shared by others, that a two-state solution is the only way for Israel to remain a Jewish state in peace with the Palestinians.
“Secretary Kerry, like Justice Minister Livni, and previous Israeli Prime Ministers Olmert and Barak, was reiterating why there’s no such thing as a one-state solution if you believe, as he does, in the principle of a Jewish State. He was talking about the kind of future Israel wants and the kind of future both Israelis and Palestinians would want to envision,” she said. “The only way to have two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two-state solution. And without a two-state solution, the level of prosperity and security the Israeli and Palestinian people deserve isn’t possible.”
But leaders of pro-Israel organizations told The Daily Beast that Kerry’s reference to “apartheid” was appalling and inappropriately alarmist because of its racial connotations and historical context.